Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Class Reunion

by Annette Dashofy

I received an invitation to my high school reunion in the mail the other day. My THIRTIETH high school class reunion. Egads, how can that be possible? I’ve been launched into an emotional turmoil. Where did those thirty years go?

My class has held reunions faithfully at regular five year intervals. I’ve never gone. Why? Lots of reasons. One being that my husband graduated the same year from a different school. If we go to one, we should go to both, right? And that gets expensive. Especially when it’s someplace you don’t really want to go. Long ago, Ray suggested we ditch the expense of our reunions, take that money and go somewhere we really LIKE instead. Worked for me.

I was always the geek child in high school. Slightly nerdy, but not scholastic enough to truly qualify as A NERD. I wasn’t a cheerleader. I wasn’t a brain. I wasn’t cute. I wore braces. I hated how I looked.

In retrospect, I was probably like everyone else in that regard. When I look back at my yearbooks, I don’t think I looked so awful. But at the time? Yeesh. All the other girls were prettier, sexier, curvier in the right places. I was a stick. Knobby knees, bowed legs and no boobs. These days, I’d have been right in style. Without the side effects of anorexia. I was a natural twig. No starvation required.

Damn, what happened to my metabolism in the last thirty years?

Anyway, the point is I don’t have much in the way of fond memories of high school. I’ve always feared that I would revert to that shy, miserable, self-loathing kid if I went to one of those reunions. Besides, I was so NOT popular, I figured no one would miss me when I didn’t show up anyway.

I admit there are a few people I’d like to see. One of my best friends in high school, who served as a bridesmaid at my wedding, went on to live in New York and won two Emmy Awards for make up. I haven’t seen her in decades. We exchange Christmas cards and promises to get together when she’s in town, but that’s about it. There was a boyfriend I’d be curious to see. Is he still cute? Of course, my hubby would be with me, so maybe it would be better off if he turned out fat and bald. Another friend, who was my maid of honor, moved to Virginia. It would be nice to see her, too. But how do I know they’d show up? Maybe they’re planning on skipping it, too.

In my senior year, when they put out those “Most likely to…” lists, I was dubbed most likely to write the Great American Novel. Thirty years later, I have indeed written a novel. Great American? Well, it’s set in West Virginia which is definitely American, but I hardly think that’s what they had in mind. Still, it would be nice to march into that reunion with a publishing contract to show off. Even if it were for a murder mystery rather than some work of great literature. Otherwise, I’m leaning towards blowing off yet another reunion.

I don’t have to RSVP (complete with a check for the dinner and dance) until June. Maybe I’ll wait until the last minute in case that publishing contract comes through.

What do you think? Should I go? Or should I spend the money on a weekend get-away, just my hubby and me? Have you gone to any of your class reunions? Were they fun or a major disappointment? I’m waiting to hear. Your input may very likely sway my decision.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Life Happens

by Judith Evans Thomas

I received a call two weeks ago from my editor at Pittsburgh Magazine. After the formalities it went something like this: "Judith, would you be available for a meeting with Betsy (Major Mucky muck), Julie (Second in Command mucky muck)and Me (my friendly mucky muck editor)? What do I say. "No, I'm having a lobotomy?" I dig a little for the topic. No luck. Lori is being closed mouth. Enter paranoia. What could my editors possibly want to discuss? The list of topics had no cut off point:

* We hate your're fired.
* We hate your column...bye
* We hate your column...blah blah blah.

Although I don't need this column and it certainly brings in minimal money, I suddenly realized that I loved writing it. Who else would put up with my ego centric musings and travel writing? What would I do if I lost it?

Obviously what I should be doing is writing my mystery, revising my thriller, and being a serious writer. I even had a new project in the pipeline. But this was so muchy fun!!!!

Fast forward the two weeks of waiting. I've gained five pounds, become friendly with every antacid on the market and learned to love sleeping ten hours a night. Do I have anxiety???? ME??????
Last night I planned my wardrobe. I should look serious but elegant. Not too trendy but trendy enough. I'd wear platform shoes so I didn't look so short. I felt like I was going to the gallows.

I woke up early this morning and took two Pepsid AC tablets. What was my problem?It's just a column!!! I sat at my computer but couldn't write, so I paid bills. In my usual fashion I considered arriving late. Nope. That would be bad karma. When I arrived at 1:45 the receptionist recognized me. "Judith. Lori is waiting."

My heart started racing. Should I just turn around and run? I used my mindful techniques learned at Miraval Spa and took a deep breath. When the elevator door opened I started the "Green Mile" past George Miles's office... maybe I should stop and say Hi, past Mr. Rogers Neighborhood office, Mr. McFeely and I were buddies. He'd love to chat. No. Lori, Julie and Betsy were waiting.

Inside Betsy's office we engage in a few minutes of chit chat but I could tell they were anxious to get on with the meeting and the reason I had been called on the carpet. I took another mindful breath and said.... "So what's up?"

The next half hour passed in a second. I wasn't fired. They needed me to take a new role....Travel Editor. WOW.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Blues

There are more ways than ever to see a movie.

As I write this blog, I am watching the Oscar pre-show. The information about the nominated films is flashing across the bottom of the screen. I’ve hardly seen any of them. The two that I did see, I saw on DVD last week.

Now I love movies. I love to see movies on the big screen. Why haven’t I seen most of the movies, you ask? That’s what I’d like to know.

Many of the films nominated never made it to my neighborhood. Actually, that would have been impossible because there isn’t a movie theater in my neighborhood. The closest theater, in the very gut of the suburbs, is 13 miles away. It is in the vicinity of a Wal-Mart, so because of traffic, it can take almost half an hour just to get yourself into the parking lot. So, even if you consider that theater my “neighborhood” theater, there is another complicating factor; that theater only shows kid movies and action /adventure movies. Think Tom Cruise in whatever version of Top Gun he is starring in at the moment.

Well, I guess I will just have to be patient and see everything late on DVD. Yeah, right! There isn’t a video store here either. It took two trips to the Iggle Video to find a copy The Devil Wears Prada and Little Miss Sunshine. I only got those because I sweet-talked the clerk into giving them up from the cart behind the counter.

I pay $130 per month for cable. Pay-per-view and On Demand should be options, however, there is a secret code that unlocks the parental controls and WE DON’T HAVE IT! We also have no children, so we are not sure how the parental control ever got set up. In the time I would have to spend on hold with the cable company to solve this problem, I could fly to Los Angeles and make my own movie.

I feel completely cut off from the entire category of popular culture that is American cinema. My husband and I are busy people. We can’t spend an hour in transit to see a movie. We don’t have time to drive to the lousy grocery store to beg for the chance to see a movie that the rest of the world saw six months ago. We really don’t need the hassle of calling the cable company.

NetFlix looks as if it is the only possible solution to my dilemma. Of course, I will have to watch all movies on my old TV after I wait for them to arrive via the mail. Sigh.

Didn’t this used to be easier? Did seeing a movie always require research, travel and significant financial output?

I think I'll turn off the Oscars and go read a book.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bad Kids and Teenage Criminals

by Gina Sestak

My first writing job was for the National Center for Juvenile Justice. I fell into that job by accident while attending law school. During the school year, I was taking odd jobs and selling blood plasma to survive -- I'll blog about that sometime in the future. One of my fellow students noticed the tracks (needle marks) on my arms and, when I had explained that no, I was not a junkie, he helped me to get a part-time research position where he was working.

The National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) had an office in Pitt Law School at that time. I began as one of several research assistants on a project that compared state laws on juvenile offenders. There are three categories of offenses that can be committed by a juvenile - status offenses, delinquent acts, and crimes.

A status offense is an act that is only wrongful because of the age of its perpetator. Although the specific parameters of what constitutes a status offense differs from state to state, status offenses typically include things like truancy, curfew violation, drinking alcohol, etc.

A delinquent act usually would be considered a crime if committed by an adult, and includes things like shoplifting, robbery, burglary, etc.

Some states also provide that, for serious offenses such murder, a juvenile can be treated as an adult criminal. In some states, this is automatic while in others a juvenile court judge must hold a hearing before making the decision to send a specific case to adult court.

Another category, dependency, is usually reserved for children who are abused, neglected, or otherwise without proper parental care or supervision.

Although these categories appear to be clear, states differed widely about what specific acts fell within each category. For example, at that time (late 1970s) in Pennsylvania, anyone over the age of 10 who killed someone could be charged with murder as an adult. Pennsylvania also had no status offense category. Kids who committed status offense-type acts could be considered either dependent or delinquent -- sometimes going from category one to another. I later worked on an appellate brief in the case of a teenage girl who had been found dependent (i.e., without proper parental supervision) due to truancy. The juvenile court judge ordered her to go to school. When she continue to skip, he adjudicated her delinquent for violation of a court order.

The result of all that research was my first book, a monograph Juvenile Court Jurisdiction Over Children's Conduct: A Statutes Analysis, by John L. Hutzler and Regina Marie Sestak, published by NCJJ in 1977.

I continued to work for NCJJ after the research and book were completed, serving as Assistant Editor on the Juvenile Court Digest, a monthly publication of the National Council of Juvenile Court Judges. A few other students employees and I would prepare summaries of every state or federal court decision relevant to juvenile law issued within a given month, then I would edit the summaries for publication.

I continued to work part-time for NCJJ until I took the bar exam. Between that and other part-time and temporary positions, I almost never had to sell blood plasma again.

What did I learn from this job?

I learned a lot about crime, delinquency, status offenses, and dependency.

I learned to edit text that I had not written myself.

I learned to write according to a set format.

Most of all, I learned that jobs can sometimes be intellectually stimulating as well as fun.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Talent Show

By Lisa Curry

Last year, my son Sean, then six, wanted desperately to participate in his elementary school’s annual talent show.

“But you don’t have a talent,” I said. Then I realized how that sounded and amended, “I mean a talent like singing or dancing. Of course you have talent, but you can’t play baseball in the talent show.”

“I can burp my ABCs,” he said.

That’s the child’s claim to fame –- he can burp on demand, an ability much envied by his older brother and other boys in their age group.

“Uh, I don’t think so,” I said. “How about if we just go watch the talent show, and maybe that will give us some ideas about what you could do next year?”

He grudgingly agreed, and on talent show night, I took him to watch. It turned out that most of the participants had no exceptional talent, either. They sang, danced, or told jokes, and they were cute, but I didn’t spot any future American Idol winners on stage.

A pair of brothers the same age as my sons sang "Old McDonald had a Farm" and made armpit farts for duck and pig noises. That was scarcely better than burping, but nobody seemed to object.

“Okay, you can be in the talent show next year,” I told Sean afterward. “Maybe you and your brother could dress up in black suits and fedoras and do the Blues Brothers. That would be cool.”

Do children ever cooperate with their parents’ plans in such matters?

When talent-show registration rolled around this year, Sean’s nine-year-old brother had no interest in participating. Sean still wanted to, but he didn’t want to sing. He wanted to burp the alphabet.

I said no.

“But you PROMISED I could be in the talent show this year!”

“I never promised you could burp in it,” I said. “Why can’t you just sing?”

He persisted, and in a moment of weakness and exasperation, I threw up my hands and signed the permission form.

As a person who never had any brothers, I once honestly believed that if little boys had role models who acted decent and civilized, they wouldn’t indulge in the cruder behavior typically associated with men. My husband didn’t belch, pass gas, or scratch himself in public; therefore, neither would my sons.

Then I gave birth to Sean, who quickly stripped me of my illusions.

For the first several years of his life, I couldn’t keep clothes on the boy. He was always in front of the TV, butt-naked, scratching at his genitals, belching and farting like a stereotypical little man.

Last summer he wanted his head shaved in a mohawk. I said no repeatedly, but my husband finally gave in.

We attended a company picnic, and one of my coworkers looked at Sean, looked at me, laughed, and said, “If your kid hides his mohawk under a John Deere ballcap, you might be a redneck.”

Yeah, and if your kid hides his mohawk under a John Deere ballcap AND burps his ABCs in the school talent show, I don’t think there’s any “might be” about it.

So the big day has finally arrived. This evening I will attend the elementary school talent show as the proud parent of the burper. I can hardly wait.

Too bad his mohawk’s gone, but I’m sure that John Deere ballcap’s still around here somewhere.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Literary Bliss

by Kristine Coblitz

Last week I attended my first photo shoot for the local family magazine I write for. I have a cover story coming out in the March issue on local doctors who volunteer in other countries. I'm excited about the article, which will feature two chiropractors, a podiatrist, a gynecologist, and an optometrist. The publisher asked me to assist in gathering these doctors together so we could organize the picture for the cover. Let me tell you that getting five doctors in one place at the same time posed a bit of a challenge. The snow and ice storm, otherwise known as the Valentine’s Day Blast of 2007 in Pittsburgh, didn't make it any easier, and I prayed the roads would be clear enough so I wouldn't have to (gasp!) reschedule.

Thankfully, all the elements--including the weather--worked in our favor, and the photo shoot turned out to be a success.

In all my years of magazine-editing experience, the cover photos, which are usually of engineering or hydraulic equipment, are almost always supplied to the editorial office by the manufacturers, making my job a lot easier. As a result of this experience, though, I learned to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into the small details of putting together a magazine, and I'll never look at a cover the same way again. I've also experienced the sort of satisfaction that can occur when everything comes together, and for a writer, I find that to be a great feeling.

The same methods I used for organizing the photo shoot can be applied to how a writer approaches drafting a novel. You need a goal, which can be a particular date when you want your draft to be finished or a daily page quota. You need open communicate with your characters to make sure they will "show up" on the page to help you meet that goal. And you pray that all the elements you've been working on throughout the process (rising action, tension, plot points, etc.) won't fall apart and prevent you from accomplishing your goal. An expected storm or wrong turn in the writing process may hinder your path somewhat and make you question if you will in fact make it, but as a professional, you push on knowing that failure to meet the goal is not an option. When it all comes together and you reach your goal, it's nothing short of literary bliss.

The key word in the preceding paragraph? Goal. I repeated it five times for a reason. Formulating a goal is the first step in any journey and also the golden ticket.

We've all had moments of literary bliss. One of those moments for me happened when I finished my first chapter and actually liked it. Another one was when I got physical chills from a scene I wrote in my villain's point of view. As a writer, it's all about the details and those small bouts of satisfaction, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Autonomy and Ecstacy

by Tory Butterworth

When I work with clients in psychotherapy, I try to help them find themes for their work. By repeating these back to them, it helps make sense of their daily struggles as dealing with a particular set of issues, rather than a series of random events. It can help them see how they are coping with the same issues more effectively as they progress in their work.

As a writer, I try to find a core theme in my work, allowing the plots and subplots to develop different aspects of that theme. My hope is this will give the work an integrated feel, as the collection of people and events fits together into a greater whole, moving towards a satisfying resolution.

One of the themes that comes up a lot with my clients is the search for autonomy. Autonomy is about developing a sense of oneself as separate from others and complete in oneself. Healthy autonomy allows people to follow their own interests and meet their own needs. A person with healthy autonomy can answer the question, "Who am I?"

One of my favorite stories of a quest for autonomy is from The House At Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne, "In Which Tigger Comes to the Forest and Has Breakfast." Pooh asks Tigger, "Do Tiggers like honey?" Tigger responds, "They like everything." However, after actually tasting honey, he realizes Tiggers like, "Everything except honey."

Tigger then tries haycorns, thistles, and many things in Kanga's cupboard, and realizes he doesn't like any of them. Finally, he tries extract of malt and realizes, "So, that's what Tiggers like."

The reason I like this story so much, and quote it often to my clients, is that while people are working through their autonomy issues, they may only be seeing all the many things that they don't like and losing track that they will ever find something they do like. I try to help them realize that they're turning down dates, jobs, or projects in the pursuit of finding something that truly fits with who they are.

Autonomy themes appear frequently in literature, not just in Winnie-the-Pooh. Classic tales of men choosing between their love and the sea (in which, as my high school English teacher once quipped, the sea always wins.) Love triangles, like Scarlet O'Hara choosing between Ashley and Rhett. Protagonists making choices that define who they are (and not just what they like to eat.)

When you look at the books you like, do any particular themes stand out? Is there a way those relate to your life?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Time Zone

by Nancy Martin

The thing I hated most about teaching was the bells. My whole day was regimented by clanging bells, and I'm not sure which was worse--the infernal noise or the frustrating knowledge that every minute of my day was ruled by someone else.

So when I took my maternity leave, I was highly motivated to find another career--one that didn't make such rigid demands on my time.

Turns out, though, a successful career as a writer depended upon honing my language skills and managing my time just as carefully as it had been done for me by the school district.

When I first started writing, I snatched moments whenever I could. I scribbled on a notepad while my husband bathed the baby. I crafted sentences while I nursed our daughter. I treasured the long drives to visit Grandpa and Grandma because I could let my imagination run free and jot notes in the car. I wrote everything in longhand--a laborious, yet detail-oriented method--then re-wrote as I typed up the finished pages. (Yes, these were the days before computers, if you can imagine!) The process made me focus on making my language very clear. Every word counted.

But it took a while to learn how to get myself in The Zone--that mental state I find ideal for writing long fiction.

I happened into The Zone by accident at first. As a young mother, I put my daughter down for a daily afternoon nap and rushed to the desk to start composing the three pages I hoped to finish every day. With my writing time limited to the duration of her nap, I used every minute to immerse myself in the story and pound the typewriter. I came to dread the first sounds of my daughter waking from her snooze. Her crib was located in the room just over my head, and I could hear her kick her toys when she first stirred. I forced myself to focus on my work as she began to sing to herself. Eventually, though, she got bored or wet and called for me, but until she did, I kept my head in the story. After a few months, I gained another precious hour of work time when she learned how to climb out of that crib and manipulate her record player. (I can still hear Mr. Rogers singing to both of us!) For me, the key to writing my quota of pages every day was not allowing anything to break the spell.

Oddly enough, I did the most writing when my children were pre-schoolers. I took them to a neighborhood daycare center at 9am and returned for them at 1pm, after they'd eaten lunch (healthy food, prepared by somebody else!) During those four precious hours alone, I wrote more pages than I had before (or since!) I relished those regular hours. I didn't waste a minute. Even the drive home from the daycare gave me valuable minutes to plan what I was going to write. One year, I wrote six romance novels using every second of those four-hour writing sessions. That era was a good lesson for me: Keeping a regular schedule, I realized, kept me in The Zone.

But when my kids started attending school and my work day lengthened, I didn't necessarily use my time as wisely as before. Suddenly I had time to read! To talk to friends on the phone. To study the market. To have a hobby. To have a life, with all the demands that come with it. Sure, I continued to write and sell a lot of books, but the fire wasn't in my belly anymore. For one thing, I didn't care for the genre I felt stuck in, and I wanted to break out, but it seemed to hard. So I wrote in fits and starts--often drafting whole books in as little as a week and then going back to flesh out the pages later. Sure, that binge-like method of writing worked, too, but it was more stressful. Gradually, I slipped into a depression. I slept for hours every afternoon, had mood swings and eventually went on Prozac.

It took a real upheaval in my family life to make the change I needed most. We moved--not once, but twice in the same year so my husband could change jobs. Our daughters went off to college. My father died. And suddenly writing books that I didn't enjoy seemed like a huge waste of precious time. I started writing mysteries.

So I'm back to the lesson I learned in the beginning. I make the time and keep it holy. I stick to a schedule. I give myself long stretches of work time so I keep myself in The Zone. My head hardly ever leaves the story. If you see me wandering around the grocery store in a daze, you'll know I'm thinking about imaginary people in imaginary places.

If I stop writing---even for a day--I can fall out of The Zone. I try to figure out why I've stalled and strategize ways to start again. (Often, it means making a date with my ruthless critique partner. I'll clean up the pages I have and send them to her as quickly as possible to avoid killing more precious time by "polishing" pages that may get chucked anyway. Her response often kick-starts me.) But sometimes the reasons for stopping are more complex. In those situations, I sometimes pay a therapist to help me find the answers. (That's the quick way!) Or I take a class. Or I give a class. Sometimes I'll take two weeks and read a book a day and journal about the experience to see what I can learn.

But it usually comes back to one thing: Making the time to write and sticking to it.

Strange, but after all those years of having my day structured by someone else, I find myself the most structured person I know. Except I can't use bells. For a long time, I couldn't even use the timer on my stove. Sure, it made for a few burned meals, but I'm a lot more aware of the passage of time without a noise to tell me. My career depends on it.

My new book comes out March 6. Look for A CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED DEATH in bookstores near you.

The dog ate my post...

Actually, I was dutifully prepared to write today’s blog last night, however, as too often happens, life intruded. My plan was to attend my son’s last home basketball game, participate in the eighth grade recognition ceremony and be home and writing by 6. As it turned out, between the corsage donning, the procession of honored eighth graders and the two genetic pools from which they sprang, and, of course, the calling of the Penn Hills police for the forcible removal of one of the opposing team's parents, we didn't even get home until after 9.

Good news though, as of last evening, the St Bart basketball parents (us)are no longer the most pugnacious group of ruffians in the diocese (east section). That honor was earned, unequivocally, by the Word of God parents (Swissvale).

Here's the scoop:
Right before half time of a game that since the tip-off had been getting progressively more "physical," there was an especially violent throw down of a Word of God player by one of our guys (not my son) that was not called as a foul. However, when the Word of God kid got up, he angrily threw the ball and cursed the ref and received a technical at which point some of the St Bart parents tried to assist the refs by suggesting that the offending Word of God player might benefit from a respite on the bench for the remainder of the competition. One of the Word of God parents was loudly objecting to the technical and was expressing how profoundly irritated he was at the St Bart's parents attempts to assist in the meting out of justice. Our pastor, Father Tom was there, sitting courtside, in front of the Word of God parents. He stood up and turned around (flashing the old roman collar) and asked everyone to just calm down, try to remember we are Christians and that this is a child's game... he looked much like Jesus must have when calming the stormy waters, except for the Steeler jacket and, of course, for the roiling waters yelling back: "Shut up and sit down, Father!"

At this point our coach, Jeff, recognizes the Word of God parent who is yelling at the priest as his arch enemy from his boyhood in Swissvale. Jeff knows this guy would have no qualms punching the priest right in the face, (he ain't afraid of no padres). So, Jeff runs across the gym and starts yelling at this guy. The guy comes out of the stands. Jeff is soon joined by a group of St Bart's Dads, which brings out a bunch of Word of God Dads and there's a tussle. The melee backs up against the stage where most of the St Bart student body is sitting. My husband, Bill, and another one of the St Bart's Dads start yelling for all the kids to leave the gym and go to the locker rooms*. This results in a running exodus across the length of the gym floor of about 50 kids, most of them in basketball uniforms.

The group of yelling-pushing-Dads leaves the gym and continue their "discussion" in the lobby. Jeff, our coach, has taken up a position as guard outside the locker room where his team is now ensconced. He, because of his history with the Word of God Dad, has backed out of the fight. St Bart Dads are demanding the priest-disrespecting-Word-of-God Dad leave the premises, and if he's smart (which he probably isn't) he'll get going before the Penn Hills cops show up. Word of God Dad backs up like he's going to concede the field, but alert St Bart Dad (and offensive coach of the St Bart Bruins, the 2006 diocese football champs) JP Marelli sees that Word of God Dad is actually winding it up to take a swing at locker room guard Jeff and Marelli executes an open field tackle on Word of God Dad. Wham, down onto the terrazzo! With JP Marelli's forearm across his neck, and the rest of JP Marelli (not small amount of matter) draped across his body, Word of God Dad decides it is indeed time to go.

Half time is over. Our team returns to the court, Father Tom holds an impromptu prayer session with the players. He does not invite the Word of God players to join the prayer circle.

Play resumes.

Beginning of the fourth quarter, the 50/50 is announced and bestowed upon a Word of God parent without incident. (Though Bill does mention that the proceeds of the 50/50 from the girl's game earlier was donated back to the school, just saying...)

St Bart dominates and, rather than take out the starters and put in the 7th graders which is customary in this situation, the coach Jeff decides to beat Word of God like a rented mule. The refs try to control the "physicality" of the game by calling every foul real or imagined, and the game drags on and on. Finally, it is over.

Word of God and St Bart parents mingle uneasily and head for the parking lot, which is now under the watchful eye of four Penn Hills policemen and two cop cars. The Word of God coach is furious at the shellacking his team received and decides to express his displeasure with a reckless backing up maneuver and hits one of the Penn Hills cop cars. D'oh!

Well...after all this excitement I was too bushed to write my blog but couldn’t resist recounting this real life drama.
Pat Hart

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lessons Learned

By Brian Mullen

Writing can be difficult. This, of course, goes without saying, which brings us to:

LESSONS LEARNED #1: You probably shouldn’t start a paragraph by saying something that goes without saying.

It is amateur mistakes like these…wait, ‘mistakes’ is plural. It are mistakes…no, they are mistakes…like…it is…

LESSONS LEARNED #2: Don’t be afraid to try and ‘distract’ the reader from previous sentences by tossing in a “lessons learned” quip when necessary.

So, today, I will try and help some of you so-called ‘novice’ writers by sharing some mistakes I have made in the course of learning the writing craft. For example, tell me, if you can, what is wrong with this opening mystery paragraph.

As the bullet lodged into his chest, just millimeters from his heart, Michael Johnson had two simultaneous thoughts: first, that he wouldn’t live to see his vow of vengeance fulfilled, and, second, that the author really should have picked a different character from whose point of view to tell this story.

Did you find the mistake? No, it wasn’t the use of the metric system measurement (that sort of thing goes over BIG in Europe and a few other countries). No other guesses? Well, then I’ll tell you. It was, in fact, that the main character died in the first sentence.

LESSONS LEARNED #3: Never kill your Point of View character in the beginning of your novel.

This places the author in an awkward position of logically not being able to continue the story. It’s okay, mind you, to kill off the main character at the END of the novel, but at the beginning might be a tad too early. Ditto with the middle of the story. Try and keep the character alive until the very, very end, if possible.

Let’s try again. What’s the fundamental flaw in this title?

How Michael Johnson was Killed by Frank Mahoney: A Whodunit

This one is subtle so don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch it.

LESSONS LEARNED #4: Don’t reveal the name of the murderer of a whodunit in the title of the book.

Apparently, it is customary in a whodunit NOT to reveal who the murderer is until way at the end of the book. This is so readers have a chance to solve the case themselves. Thus identifying the murder IN THE TITLE is frowned upon.

Well, I hope you all have learned a thing or two from my mistakes. I was please to share my experiences with all of you. Now, I must return to work on my manuscript. It’s a mystery with a surprising plot twist at the end. I can’t tell you too much about it yet except the working title which is, “The Murder Victim Who Faked His Own Death.” I suspect it’ll be a best seller!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cold Crime

by Joyce Tremel

No, this isn't about cold cases. We don't have many of those. As a matter of fact, I think we have only one--a hit and run where a pedestrian was killed while crossing Mt. Royal Blvd. after leaving a bar. We had a missing person's case a few years back that our intrepid Sgt. Vulakovich (now State Representative Vulakovich) worked on. A wife reported her husband missing. He was a cook at the homeless shelter on the North Side and she was sure that he'd met foul play. Randy left nothing undone in his investigation--the size of his case file is legendary. As it turned out though, the guy left voluntarily and covered his tracks very well. He never used his credit cards, SS number, or applied for another driver's license. Want to know how he was found? He was living in Arizona, still working as a chef. He was riding his bicycle one night and a cop stopped him because he was weaving. Yep. Caught for DUI. On a bike, no less. When the cop ran him through NCIC, he got the missing person hit and called our department.

Right now, there are no crime sprees to report. Everyone in Shaler is behaving themselves, for the most part. It’s been too damn cold to commit crimes. What self-respecting criminal wants to freeze their butt off stealing someone’s tires?

The only thing we’ve had in abundance lately (especially over the last few days) are motor vehicle accidents. People just won’t learn that you can’t drive over an icy patch at sixty miles an hour in a thirty mile per hour zone. Especially when your BAC is over a 0.2 (legal limit is 0.08). A couple of weeks ago we had a guy shear off not one—but two—telephone poles then roll his vehicle over. We've had three rollover accidents in the past three weeks.

So, if anyone is out and about in this weather, take it easy. Oh, and if you see a cop out there directing traffic, or otherwise freezing his ass off, take him a hot cup of coffee. Believe me, it will be appreciated.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Most Romantic Day of the Year?

by Annette Dashofy

To all the men of the world: you have my sympathy.

This is Valentine’s Day, the most romantic day of the year. Or at least it is according to all the commercials. Jewelry stores and greeting card companies play it up to such an extent that all of us women now expect diamond rings, red roses, the most heartfelt Valentine’s Day card ever created all while dining out and sipping champagne.

No wonder the guys break into hives in the weeks leading up to this day. Who can possibly match the expectations created by the Valentine’s marketing machine.

My husband isn’t especially romantic. But then, neither am I. I think I used to be, but reality set in. My point, however, is that this spring, we will be celebrating our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. And we were together for three years before that. And we still like each other.

Have you seen the stuff on Dr. Phil lately? Women whose husbands are class A jerks weep and moan. But I still love him, they wail. Somehow, I don’t think they like him very much, though. There’s something to be said for the practicality of being friends. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still in love with my husband. But most days I think I value his friendship even more. I know he’s there when I need him. Borrowing from Dr. Phil again, my husband is my safe place to fall.

But does he buy me flowers? Sometimes. Usually a cheap bouquet from the grocery store. A rose, a couple carnations and some greenery. A dozen roses? Get real! He’s too cheap. Hey, I love him, but I know him too well. Does he buy me jewelry? Rarely. But when he does, I have to tell you, he has great taste. He doesn’t like champagne (I do!), so there will be none of that this evening either.

In fact we won’t be celebrating at all tonight. In true Working Stiffs fashion, I will be teaching yoga class and my hubby has the three to eleven shift. By the time he gets home, I’ll be asleep. Like I said, I’m not all that romantic either.

A couple years ago, we made the grand effort to do what you’re supposed to do on Valentine’s Day and go out for a romantic dinner. He even promised me dessert! Woo hoo! The first restaurant we stopped at had a two and a half hour wait for a table. The same for the second one. Neither of us had thought far enough ahead to make reservations. Oops. We were both starved and ended up at Mad Mex’s. Not especially romantic, which is probably why we could get a table.

We agreed that night to celebrate Valentine’s Day on any day except February 14.

And to make sure I get to go to the restaurant of my choice, inside his Valentine’s Day card my husband will find a gift certificate to Olive Garden. I bought it at Giant Eagle to get the fuel perks points. Romantic? No. But then I’m a little cheap, too.

So what are your plans for the most romantic day of the year?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Being Mindful

by Judith Evans Thomas

After reading Annette's anti-shopping confession and the subsequent comments from my sisters-in-crime I had a nervous breakdown. I decided that only in a desert oasis would the world be safe from listening to my uncontrollable sobs and banchee-like wails of Manolooooooooooo and Praddddaaaaaa. At another time of deep dispair I retreated to the Arizona Desert where like-minded suffering souls learned to cope with their inner demons.

Miraval, was started many years ago as a sort of detox haven. Over the years, the resort has morphed into a haven for those of us in need of finding balance in our lives. As quoted on their website:

"Miraval is the world’s premier destination for helping people bring their lives into balance by learning to live mindfully. The Miraval experience is about learning to live in, enjoy and appreciate each moment and in so doing, creating a personal path to greater awareness." The goal is to create a "Life in Balance."

Making sure not to bring any Fendi, or for that matter trendy color co-ordinated outfits, I packed and snuck out of town. I could and would learn to live my life in balance, not teetering on four inch heels.

I'm now four days into the program and have meditated, done yoga, studied mindful eating, mindful time management, mindful living and mindful decision making. I feel calm and, well...mindful. And how you might ask does that relate to writing?

As I've come to realize, mindfulness is what I've been missing. On a normal writing day, I start out, cup of coffee in hand, looking at email. After answering or deleting the recent messages, I turn to the stack of bills and to do correspondence I've diligently placed next to the phone. Around this time the phone rings, someone comes to the door, or I get hungry. Now it is 11 in the morning and I haven't written a word, let alone thought of writing a word. I go to the kitchen, grab a diet pepsi and some cheese and return to my desk feeling properly guilty about not writing. I once again check my email and the cycle continues. Around two in the afternoon, I get bored with my distractions, grab another diet Pepsi and a cheese stick and open up my latest Word document. I can now choose to work on my column, book, or outline for my non fiction WIP. I review all three before deciding to concentrate on the one with a deadlne. By now it is 3 P.M. If, like many of my sibs, there are children at home, I'm out the door for carpool. Since I don't have that excuse I begin writing. Wahoooooo. I am so proud of myself. But I'm hungry again and Daisy (the dog) needs to go out.

I don't need to bore you with any more of my scheduling disasters because it must now be obvious.... what I lack is organization. And the core of organization is mindfulness. So, what I've learned this week is how to be in the "moment".

My new schedule:

Morning coffe: Smell the aroma, taste the bitterness of the beans, feel the caffeine wake up my mind.

Desk: Turn on the computer. Relish every email and think mindfully about what you all have written. Don't delete any emails... that wouldn't be mindful.

If the phone rings, answer it and spend lots of time being mindful of what the caller is saying... especially if he/she is selling something I don't really want.

If the doorbell rings, sprint to answer it in time to thank the UPS or FEDEx person and ask how their day is going. That is mindful

Get another snack... this time mindfully balanced with protein, carbs and fat. Probably requires cooking.

When I get to writing, be mindful. Which kind of writing should be analyzed in more mindful detail.

Whoops. It's dinner time. Let's eat mindfully.

Next month Oprah is hosting 50 lucky guests at Miraval. I wonder if she's bringing her Manolos?

I may be here for another year... what are your mindful practices?????

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Take Me Away, Inspector Banks

by Brenda Roger

I read to escape. For years, I was convinced that I had to read scholarly books about art and nothing else. Then, I got a job that I hated. Listening to books on tape on the way to and from work as well as my lunch hour, took me to far away places. It made sitting in the moldy basement (my office) with a crazy person (my boss) more bearable.

Then, I start my own business and just felt too busy to read as much as I would like, however, one summer we moved into a one bedroom apartment (from a 100 year old house that I loved dearly) to wait for our house to be built, and everything changed. Honestly, that apartment would fit in one half of the first floor of most houses. My English Springer spaniel and I were stuck there all day while I sewed handbags in the corner of the living room. There were appointments to keep and decisions to make where the house was concerned. Most of that responsibility fell to me. It was a stressful time.

My mother took pity on me. She offered a stack of Patricia Cornwell novels as a distraction. I spent part of that summer fighting crime with Dr. Scarpetta. The ending of one of the novels actually made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It was exhilarating.

Zoom ahead four years. I just finished the latest Scarpetta novel, Predator. This won’t give anything away to those who haven’t read it, so you can read on safely. There are four main characters that are in almost every book, and I have to tell you, I don’t like these people anymore! It was hard to stick with the story because the characters have become so unlikable and unsympathetic. Also, the subplots and conflicts in their relationships are never resolved. I feel like I read half of her first draft. Honestly, Cornwell must not like these people anymore either. It might be time to retire the series before I start buying the books and shredding them instead of reading them.

This has me concerned. I am very invested in and addicted to Peter Robinson’s Inspector Alan Banks series. Quite honestly, I have a serious crush on Inspector Banks. When I say this, people usually like to remind me that I am married and he lives in England. Oh, and HE’S MADE UP people!!! The first two reasons that we can’t be together are small potatoes compared to the not being real part.

Anyway, my concern is, that Mr. Robinson will begin to treat dear Inspector Banks the way that Cornwell has treated Dr. Scarpetta. I don’t think I can stand to lose Banks. After all, we’re in love!

At what point is a series over? Did Patricia Cornwell learn nothing from Seinfeld? Does the author of a series have a responsibility to be true to a character?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Guns and Reports

by Gina Sestak

The summer after my first year of law school, when I still thought I might like to become a criminal attorney, I got a job with the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. My title was "Parole Agent," a step below "Parole Officer." I didn't get to carry a gun.

Everyone else in the office carried guns, though, except for the few women in the secretarial pool. Parole officers were considered part of the state police, so they took firearms training and carried weapons. The men carried theirs in shoulder holsters that were strikingly noticeable whenever they removed their jackets. The two women both carried their guns in their purses.

The office had an open floor plan, with a few private offices and interview rooms along the sides. Most of the officers and other agents sat at desks that were arranged in rows. I did, too. It's a little scary to be sitting in an open plan office, surrounded by people with guns. Who knew when one of them might snap?

Because I was only working for the summer, I didn't supervise a case load. Instead, I did the intake interviews and wrote presentence reports. The state Probation and Parole Board was responsible for criminals convicted of crimes that carried a sentence of at least two years. Criminals convicted of lesser crimes were the responsibility of the county.

Anyone convicted and sentenced to probation was sent directly from court to our office. I would meet with the person in one of the private interview rooms and explain the requirements he or she would have to meet to stay on probation and out of prison. I would also conduct a social history interview, asking questions about their background and criminal history. [Of course, we checked this with the FBI as well.] Then I would write a report.

I wrote presentence reports, too. The presentence report was prepared after conviction but before sentencing to provide the judge with guidance. It was essentially the same as an intake report, but with two major additions. I got to recommend a sentence. And I interviewed the victims, to let the judge know the impact of the crime. I had the use of a state car to go out and meet the victims in their homes, where we could talk privately. I always asked them what they thought the sentence ought to be and put that in the report as well.

Parole officers had the right to arrest any of the criminals they supervised and hold them for up to ten days if they suspected that further crimes or rule violations had been committed. The most common infraction was drug use, even though the parolees and probationers must have known they'd never get away with it -- anyone convicted of a drug-related crime had to provide urine samples three times a week.

The worst thing I had to do on this job was assist in arrests. This didn't happen often, but when neither of the female officers were available and a woman was being arrested, I was asked to be there in case the arrestee later made claims of rape, etc. Usually the woman (and some of the men) being arrested would sob uncontrollably and beg not to be taken back to jail. It was horrible.

The job could cause some awkward moments -- like the time I went out to a club with friends and saw a convicted prostitute I'd just interviewed there with her friends. I was trying to be inconspicuous, so she wouldn't think I was surveilling her, then I realized that if she saw me hiding behind pillars, she'd be sure I was. I ended up just going home.

What did I learn from this job? Plenty. I learned that:

Convicted criminals are interesting to talk to. One child molester insisted that he was blameless, having been seduced by evil children. A biker claimed that, because he worshipped Satan, the last church he'd entered had spontaneously burst into flames. A burglar insisted that the crime had really been committed by a woman -- the witness only thought it had been him because he wore his hair long.

Criminals do dumb things. Like the guy who was caught having sex with a cow -- he was caught because it wasn't his cow. Or the guys who saw in the paper that the price of copper had gone up. Noticing a copper wire running along the side of the road, they got out, cut it down, and began to roll it up. Turns out it was a railroad communication line. When someone from the railroad came to check on why the line was dead, they were caught. Or the guy who wrote a threatening letter to the judge who had convicted him, and signed his name.

A Caucasian woman (me) walking through a mostly African-American public housing project (where many of the victims lived) and carrying a tablet will always be mistaken for a welfare caseworker by hordes of little kids, who'd follow me and ask a lot of questions. They seemed to be impressed that I worked for the parole board, even though I didn't have a gun.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Reality of Politics

by Meryl Neiman

Every other day it seems, someone is throwing their hat into the ring to be considered as the next president of the United States. As the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, I think this next election is going to be pretty critical so I've been giving it a lot of thought. And here's what I've decided.

We haven't been doing the best of jobs lately picking presidents the old-fashioned way. Very few people are pleased with the current president even though a majority of people cast their votes for him. The election before that, we're not even really sure who won, and the guy before that couldn't keep his pants on in office.

So here's what I'm suggesting. Maybe Americans aren't cut out for traditional democratic elections. We're not getting a good feel for our candidates via paid commercials, stump speeches, and staged debates. We need to see more of our candidates. We need to REALLY get to know them. We need Reality TV.

Sounds crazy I know, but hear me out. Americans are used to reality television. We're interested in it. We watch it. More people watch the final American Idol episodes than any political debate.

Let's say we followed the American Idol model for choosing our next president. Party strategists would travel the country to a few cities, combing the land for political talent. Those selected would journey to Washington where they would compete on live television before a national audience. There would be three "professional" judges. Let's see. . . . Maybe George Will (he'd not be bad in the Simon role -- he has that same ability to make intelligent, cutting remarks); Katie Couric (give her some narcotics and she'd do fine as the political version of Paula) and Al Roker as Randy (okay Al doesn't do political commentating much, but come on, they both had the same gastric bypass surgery).

Instead of singing, each week the candidates would be forced to respond to a serious political issue -- healthcare, the war in Iraq, global warming, America's dependency on foreign oil, etc. -- or handle an inprompu contrived political crisis, or engage in debate. The judges would give their recommendations and then the people would vote. No hanging chads. We wouldn't even have to leave our homes. We'd text message our way to our next US president.

You don't like American Idol? How about Survivor? Don't laugh. I think we'd weed out the idiots and the narcissists pretty quickly. It's hard to hide your spots for long on a deserted island with cameras following you 24/7. We'd toss in the five or so biggest contenders for president and then a healthy mix of non political challengers. I can assure you that if we'd followed the Survivor model, we would all have known about Clinton's little problem with women before he got near the White House (have you seen those skimpy bikinis?). We would get to see how our candidates forged alliances, observe their athletic and mental prowess, determine how they perform under extreme conditions, how they strategize, whether they can make fire . . .

And really, isn't Congress pretty similar to Survivor? A group of people obstensibly trying to get along, but really each one looking to advance his/her own career. We would just have to make one minor alteration. The jury at the end of the show would consist not of other contestants, but the American people.

Not convinced? How about The Great Race. We'd have teams of President and Vice Presidential candidates (yes, they'd have to come right out and pair up at the beginning, none of this pussyfooting around at the end) competing around the world. We'd weed out the ugly Americans, those who can't pronounce the names of foreign cities, those who can't work well in tandem with their partner. It would be a great way for the new president to introduce him or herself to the world at the same time as demonstrating his/her political mettle.

So, what do you all think? Couldn't hurt to try, could it?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Top 10 List

by Kristine Coblitz

In a recent issue of the technical magazine I work for, we ran a piece called “The Top 10 Reasons You Know You’re an Engineer.” It was highly entertaining, and I thought it would be fun to apply this concept to mystery writers.

So here is my version of the Top 10 List for those of us who write about crime for a living.

You Know You’re a Mystery Writer if...

Number 10: You have the CSI theme song as the ring tone on your cell phone.

Number 9: You plot devious and interesting ways to murder your family and friends...on the page, that is.

Number 8: Your online search history has more crime-related hits than the FBI.

Number 7: Your idea of appropriate dinner conversation includes stories of blood splatter and blunt force trauma.

Number 6: Your dream job is working as a crime scene clean-up crew member.

Number 5: Your copy of FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES is filled with Post-It Notes.

Number 4: You keep Court TV on the television as background noise.

Number 3: You start wondering if your quiet, quirky neighbor is really a serial killer.

Number 2: You've tried to decorate the outside of your house with yellow crime scene tape.

And finally...

Number 1: The local police have you on a watch list because you've called more than once to ask about how to get away with murder.

What would you add to the list? Let's see how many more we can come up with.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Shopping Stiffs

by Annette Dashofy

I am the black sheep of my family. I don’t love to shop. (Somebody catch GlamGal before she faints!)

My mom has always been a shop-til-you-drop kind of gal, however, at eighty-six years young, she drops a little earlier in the day now. My sister-in-law and nieces make a regular pilgrimage to the Mall of America each autumn. To me, most shopping is right up there with bamboo shoots under fingernails.

However, now that winter has set in and southwestern Pennsylvania rivals Iceland and wins in the coldest temperatures department, the stores have grown less crowded. My aversion to parking lots that reached its peak in the week before Christmas has eased to a tolerable level. Maybe it isn’t shopping that repels me as much as other shoppers.

My current pet peeve is those ever-popular Heely things. Kids zip through Wal-Mart on their wheeled heels (how DO they keep from falling over on their backsides?) and come perilously close to taking me out like a bowling ball smashing into the pins. What really concerns me is when they experience those near misses with my previously mentioned eighty-six year young mother with her two artificial hips. Store owners, hear me. Ban those things!

OK, so I don’t hate all shopping. Of course, I love bookstores. I love the smell of them. I love the sound of them. I even find the spot on the shelf where my novel will fit in when (not IF) it gets published. It’s a game I play. Look! There in the mystery section in the D’s. That’s where it will go.

I also love office supply stores. All those pens and reams of paper. All the office furniture and computer accessories and software! Even the aisles of paper clips and Post-It notes make me weak in the knees. And I love the hidden treasures I often find, like the pen with a light in the barrel, perfect for jotting down ideas that crop up in the middle of the night.

Then there are the hardware stores. I’m not the least bit handy with those tools, but I do enjoy dreaming about new kitchen cabinets, new flooring, new lighting. And they have the cutest bird feeders and garden stuff in there. All the better for dreaming of warmer days and springtime.

And so far, I haven’t seen a single kid wearing Heelys in any of those places.

So how about you? If someone were to give you an unlimited gift card to one store, which store would it be? Other than Mystery Lovers Bookshop…we all KNOW that would be our first choice. What’s your SECOND choice?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

In Search of That One Perfect Word

by Mike Crawmer

Looking back on it now, writing the first draft of my mystery seems like purgatory, albeit a purgatory of my own making. It took me way too long to get to the point where I felt I had written all that needed to be written and I could type that last period on that last sentence in that last paragraph. Done, at last.

Now, for the rewrite, the next daunting step in the creative process, but one that I looked forward to--really. At the office I rework, rewrite and sometimes re-imagine others’ writing. How much more satisfying the editing experience will be when rewriting my own WIP. Now I can fix the contradictions, repair POV problems, and figure out what to do with that subplot that, so important in chapter four, peters out in chapter ten. Rewriting will be challenging and, yes, fun. But I’m still in chapter one when I hit a dead end. One sentence refuses to be fixed.

“Andre’s words echoed throughout the hall” seems, at first glance, to be just fine. There’s the requisite subject and verb, and a hint of the setting. But, on second look, “hall” won’t work. You see, Andre is speaking inside a vast, empty stable. For the average reader, “hall” conjures up an office building, a hospital, a school, maybe even a Southern plantation house. Not a stable.

Okay, let’s see how I can fix this. I write, “echoed through the stable,” but I’ve already established the setting. To write “stable” again would be repetitious and--horrors!--unimaginative. How about “room”? It is a room, but, oh, how bland! “Space” then? Nope. Sounds like something an interior decorator would say. Hey, what about “interior”? But “interior,” besides being about as unspecific as you can get, suffers the same affliction as “room”—it’s boring.

Figuratively tossing my hands up in the air, I look at the entire sentence rather than focusing on one frustratingly wrong word. “Andre’s words” has to stay, but what about replacing “echo”? Maybe Andre’s words could “bounce off the stable’s musty walls” or “fall with a thud amid the empty straw-filled stalls”?

I look at all the options. Hall. Walls. Stalls. Is there a pattern here? I’m really stuck, aren’t I? And now I’ve gone from echoing to bouncing to thudding, and I’m no happier than I was when I first realized “hall” wouldn’t work. Ten minutes wasted and I still have 68,346 words to go.

At this pace, “WIP” will go from shorthand when referring to the novel underway to the very title of the work itself. And I thought writing the first draft was a chore!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Keeping it Real

by Pat Hart
It seems all writing advice and axioms include: Write What You Know, and yet so many fantastic books are about times and places the writer could never have been. I marvel at writers who can write about Vienna in the 1890s, or Ancient Rome, or Japan during the age of the Samurai. Creating a science fiction world is different;the writer can make up the whole thing, and claim: it’s so, because I say it’s so. Not true of real places and time. Everything I’ve written is set in a time and place that is familiar to me. I guess I fear that the expert of the place and time I tried to write about will harrumph, slam down my book in disgust and declare that my work is total “poppycock!”

In my current WIP a portion of my book is set in suburban U.S., late 1960 thru the early 70s and the main character is a 14-year old girl. I’ve forgotten (seriously, totally forgotten) more about that era, time of life and place than most people ever knew, so, even though I lived it, I need help finding accurate “telling” details.

For example, my main character is a devoted TV watcher and could easily recite the times, premise and whether the show is new or a repeat for every night, every station. This is not information I still have from own sit-com infused childhood, but I found it online. By the way, does anybody else remember The Rookies, The Bold Ones, Love American Style, and Room 222?

What about clothes? In the early 70s, my style was Peanut jeans, wide belts, and earth shoes, but there was also qiana blouses, platform shoes and big, big, big hair.

And wasn’t there something going on that pre-empted “The Guiding Light” for weeks on end? Perhaps the Watergate trials? I do recall Nixon’s little wave as he boarded the helicopter and that my mother was very upset though she hated Tricky Dick. She said it all reminded her of listening to Edward’s abdication as a child in England and, though it had nothing to do with it, how her family emigrated shortly after and then lost her father to booze in America. Ohhhkay, Mom…that’s nice, but when do you think we’ll get back to normal life and find out who is really the father of Reba’s baby?

Who out there is writing about a world of which they have no first hand knowledge? How do you begin? How do you connect with the characters? How do you defuse the harrumphing experts?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Worst Blog Post in History...

Kathie Shoop

Brace yourself, because this will be it. The worst post ever. I foraged around my life for the past few days, searching for something cute to blog about, but came up empty.

So, I'm left to present what's foremost on my writing mind--my WIP. I'm totally reworking a novel I started last year but abandoned when I began the rewrites for the novel that didn't sell.

But as I'm writing, from scratch, I find I'm not in love with the story as I seemed to have been with all previous novels. I've asked around a bit and gotten mixed responses: Some people think it's fine not to have every sentence invoke emotion in the writer. Others think I should let it go and move onto something else.

My trusty readers like the story and don't sense my disconnectedness in the novel.

I think I'll end up finishing it--I can have the first draft (of the new version) done in six weeks. I don't want to start leaving a trail of writing remnants behind me. I'm thinking this is when writing moves from purely an artistic phase to one of work--the job I want to do. Overall, the process is exactly what I want to be engaged in, it's just this one feels a bit different and I'm simply unsure of how to view it.

What do you guys think? Have you gone through this?

BTW, insomnia got me tonight and if anyone needs a late night flick, try "In the Bedroom" (Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei) on IFC and PS (Laura Linney) on Encore.

Sorry for the glum post...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Come Blow the Conch Shell

by Cathy Anderson Moffat

An island far away across the continent, across the ocean--Kauai. Oldest of the Hawaiian islands, with lush vegetation and beautiful green Na Pali cliffs rising out of the ocean.

Kauai, the garden isle.

I've traveled there four or five times, and each time, my heart sings. I feel at home there, feel more alive, and I fit in there.

I've felt that way about other places, especially Sedona, Arizona. Sedona, with its majestic red rocks and energy vortexes, took my breath away. My entire body felt energized, and my jaw, chest, and hands tingled at various vortexes. It felt like home.

But these are places not to live, but to return to periodically for recharging of the batteries, at least for me.

Setting can be so important in our work as writers. Setting can change the tone of the story or add an exotic element to it. When I wrote the novel Crystal Clear, my heroine escaped to Kauaia to temporarily flee the Terrible Trouble in her life, soaked in the beauty of the island, picked up a few more pieces of her personal puzzle, and snagged a Hawaiian love interest.

I wrote about that setting passionately and took the reader along for a vacation (minus the long trip and jet lag).

It's also the setting for our wedding February 8, 2007 (just a few days!) This is my last blog as Cathy Anderson Moffat. In future entries, you'll notice Cathy Anderson Corn writes a lot like me.

At 10:30 a.m. (4:30 p.m. Pittsburgh time), we'll dance to the beach in our wedding regalia, listen to the Bee Gees serenade us, and exchange vows in a Hawaiian ceremony. The minister will blow the conch shell, and a Hawaiian hula maiden will dance. We'll exchange flower leis and who knows what else.

So, my friends, what places stir you and set your heart to beating faster? Have you used these as setting in your fiction writing? What places do you yearn to visit, but haven't gone to yet?


Friday, February 02, 2007

Bodacious Inspiration

By Susan Helene Gottfried

Fellow Stiff Tory caught me mentioning Bodacious Sauce a few weeks back. Smart woman that she is, her interest was piqued. What is Bodacious Sauce, she asked, and what's the story about Bodacious Sauce and Google?

Well, until I saw that someone had reached my blog by Googling Bodacious Sauce, I never knew that it actually existed. I'd thought it was a great name for a barbecue sauce, and it totally fit the theme I was going for when I created it. That was all.

I created it back in 2003, for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo to those of us familiar with the phenomenon. I was writing a scene that had intially been inspired by Metallica's now-infamous commando appearance at a Raiders football game. I morphed the band playing in the back of a tractor trailer into five or six bands, all playing out of trailers, arranged in a very large semi-circle outside of Riverview Stadium. It became the set-up for a battle of the bands in my fictional city of Riverview, USA.

It wasn't enough to make the event authentic. So I took it a step further: there was a rib fest going on at the stadium, over the July 4 holiday weekend. (How convenient that it fell on a weekend, but that's the beauty of fiction.) The Battle of the Bands, sponsored by fictional radio station KRVR, was the crowning event.

For the main character, Boomer, there was only one place to get dinner from: Big Buck's Best Barbecue. The name of Big Buck's came to me as I sat in front of the computer and let my mind wander. I was trying for something authentic. Something that would conjure up images of hot oil drums, sliced in half and blackened by the burnt sugar in the award-winning sauces.

Once I had Big Buck's, the rest came easy. After all, alliteration sticks in people's brains. Which is exactly what Big Buck would want.

As for Bodacious Sauce, a recent Google search turned up more than just the one variety I'd initially found. Maybe I ought to order a sampling of Bodacious Sauces; certainly, the deeper I get into the world of Riverview, USA, the more prominent I expect Big Buck, his Best Barbecue, and Bodacious Sauce to become. Maybe I can find a real Bodacious Sauce to be my signature sauce. Maybe we can work out some sort of deal, where my groupies, in their ever-ongoing search to make all things Riverview real, can buy it and use it on their own backyard barbecues and close their eyes and pretend they are in my world, the members of ShapeShifter there beside them, drooling over the scents of roasting meat and Bodacious Sauce

Maybe I ought to direct these fantasies back to Riverview. I hear there's a competitor to Big Buck who's ready to open his doors…

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Women and Crime Fiction

by Joyce Tremel

On Sarah Weinman’s blog yesterday, there was a link to an intriguing article on women crime writers. The author of the article, Julie Bindel, interviewed several female British novelists about writing crime novels and what makes their books different than those written by men. The authors all stated mostly the same thing: That women humanize the victims better than men. They write crime novels as a way of “understanding the danger that lurks around us.”

The more I think about it, the more I think this is true. While both men and women are equal in the ability to write crime novels, each have different ways of presenting the story. One way is not better than the other. Just different.

Men like to deal with facts. Many times (not always), men lay out the story, investigate the crime and catch the killer. Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. There’s blood and guts and maybe a little bit of angst on the part of the protagonist—but not as much as a female writer would show.

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to explore the reasons for the crime. They want to know why the murder occurred—not just how. Female characters often go through quite a bit of anxiety and anguish in their quest. They want not only to find the killer, but bring some justice to the victim.

From what I’ve seen, this is true in real police work, too. Female officers are more likely to empathize with the victim. Male officers just want to solve the crime. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Joe Friday used to say. That’s not to say they don’t feel sympathy for the victim—they do—but they don’t handle it the same way a female officer does.

Another thing I found interesting about Sarah’s post were the comments. There were several comments from men who, in my opinion, completely misunderstood what the article was about. For some reason, they seemed to take it more as personal criticism, than just a general study of how women and men can approach the same subject in different ways. They accused the interviewed authors of stereotyping. I didn’t see the article as stereotyping men at all. The women were giving their views on how women view violence and how they portray it in their own work. There was no male bashing of any kind. The differences between the male comments and female comments just proves the point that men and women are inherently different. We just don’t think the same. That should be a surprise to no one.

What do you think of the article? Do you agree that women and men write differently? When writing a character of the opposite sex, how do you approach these differences?